Near the beginning of Pieces of a Woman, we get an extended scene that is the equal of anything in any movie from 2020. We meet a couple expecting a baby ... it's time, the woman's water breaks, they are having a home birth. A midwife arrives, a replacement for the one they have worked with ... she is tied up in another delivery. The birth takes places over the course of more than 20 minutes, all done in a single take, which had to be very hard for the actors, especially Vanessa Kirby as the mom, Martha. (They did six takes in two days.)
What follows is an unsparing examination of grief. It is powerful, and Vanessa Kirby deserves her Oscar nomination (and not just for that birthing scene). As the substitute midwife, Molly Parker delivers (pun unintended) in a small part. And many will find Ellen Burstyn's performance as the Martha's mother be powerful, as well. Here I admit to a bias ... I have a real problem with moms who are oppressively intrusive. Burstyn does fine things with the part, and the relationship between mother and daughter is a highlight of the film. So YMMV, but I hated Burstyn's character, which got in the way of my appreciation of the part.
The structure of Pieces of a Woman makes perfect sense: the intensity of the birth scene, followed by a more subtle look at how the birth affects Martha and those around her. The film properly moves through scenes where Martha suffers in silence (it's here that Kirby really shines), interspersed with moments when her emotions force their way to the surface. I can't find fault with the way Kornél Mundruczó, writer Kata Wéber, and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb present the material. Whoever made the shot selections had a quirky eye ... at times we get closeups to reveal the emotions of the characters, at other times, the screen is oddly split to you might see part of a table and part of someone's legs.
Unfair as it is to point this out, the last 90 minutes can't possibly live up to the brilliance of the first half hour. The result is a movie I admire in retrospect, a film that is nearly perfect in so many ways, but one that feels like a slight letdown. Pieces of a Woman deserves a second look down the road.